The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says it's time to lift federal protections for the gray wolf and to treat them the same way across the United States. A ruling by Acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt calls for ending federal protections for the animals in the lower 48 and allowing states and tribes to manage the species as they see fit.

It's the latest chapter in the saga of the gray wolf, which is seen as an iconic image of the American West but also a creature that poses a threat to many Westerners' way of life.

The gray wolf was hunted to near extinction in the early part of last century, but after being added to the endangered species list in 1978, the population began to rebound. But as the wolf population grew, the wolves began encroaching on ranch land and big game hunting areas. As wolf attacks on cattle and game populations became more prevalent, the push to change management procedures for the predators ramped up. This led to wolf management being handed over to the states in some instances, and that has included hunting the wolves to cull their numbers.

The wolf population now stands at more than 5,000 individuals in the lower 48 states, according to recent Fish & Wildlife figures. The animal was never classified as endangered in Alaska, where the population stands at anywhere between 7,000 and 11,000 individuals.

A patchwork of laws

In 2009, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho each submitted plans for new management programs that were approved. All three of the states’ plans included issuing permits to hunt wolves to agreed-upon levels. But by 2011, after successful legal challenges by environmentalists, the animals were once again placed on protected status — but with a catch. The resulting policy meant that the federal government essentially put the gray wolf on the endangered species list in Wyoming, but not Montana and Idaho. This raised a big question — how can a species be endangered in one state and not another? — and it also caused confusion about where the animals were legally protected and where they weren't.

The new ruling requires a public comment period. If the gray wolf is removed from the endangered species list, Fish & Wildlife will need to monitor the animal's status for the next five years.

In the meantime, the ruling sets up a clash between those who think wolves are doomed to extinction if they aren't protected and those who believe local authorities are in a better position to make these decisions.

"The plan to remove gray wolves from the Endangered Species list is deeply concerning," Reps. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) said in a joint statement published by The Hill. The men are co-chairs of the Congressional Animal Protection Caucus. "These iconic creatures are integral to ecosystems across the country and in many regions are beginning a fragile recovery. This proposal would threaten that possibility."

The American Farm Bureau Federation applauded the decision, saying wolves are a threat to livestock and their presence pushes elk and deer onto ranches.

Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in April 2011.

Government pushes to remove gray wolf from endangered species list
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service proposes letting states, tribes manage wolf populations, dropping endangered species status on the federal level.